French city politics in the raw

Marseille (2016-2018, Netflix)

Review by Peter Hulm

French critics hated Marseille, Netflix's first French production. French audiences were minimal (250K*). After a series of recriminations among its creators, according to the Capital website, Netflix cancelled it at the end of its second season after spending 12 million euros.

Le Monde's reviewer described it as 'cowshit'(bouse: manure). Europe 1's specialist described it as caricatural and ridiculous. But in international distribution, the first season of Marseille gained 130 million viewers (particularly in Brazil, the U.S, and Russia, according to the producers), and its plot turns were no more ludicrous than those of Billions, Scandal or the (British turned) American TV series it was thought most to emulate, House of Cards.

The New York Times declared snootily at its start: "‘Marseille’ Proves That American Cable Clichés Are Easy Exports", but maybe that was just the new television critic establishing his credentials.

Critical eye on local politics

Leaving aside our introduction to the most dysfunctional family on television, Marseille offers a critical eye on French politics we rarely see outside of Paris: the cities of fractious local power and neglected housing projects where the police hold no sway. The rise of the New Right that sees police control as the answer to neglected social problems is documented in this fiction, with all the answers against such poorly argued policies laid out clearly: a welfare centre is transformed into a police station to give law and order a local presence in one bigh-tower concrete slum.

The commercial and political manipulation of sport come to the forefront in series 2, reminiscent of The Wire's attempt to educate viewers about the exploitation of social issues and structures for monetary and power gains. It is not just the clichés of American television that are exported. It's as if the New York Times did not want to look into the European mirror of U.S. society and preferred to look for analogies within American television, particularly a cocaine-snorting protagonist (in Marseille it's the mayor).

Europe's hypocrisy towards drugs

The first season's original showrunner, Dan Franck (a novelist and writer of Carlos, a hit miniseries and film about Venezuelan revolutionary Carlos the Jackal), in fact said his aim with this theme was to highlight Europe's hypocrisy towards drugs among politicians and poor neighbourhoods. In Marseille, there's a reasonable explanation for the Mayor's addiction: he weaned himself off morphine to cocaine after a monster car crash that proves significant for his story.

Gérard Depardieu, for whom the role was conceived, appears as the long-time Mayor of Marseilles only a few months after taking Russian citizenship, having renounced his French citizenship because of dispute over taxes. His first words, after we see him taking coke, take him out to the grounds of the Vélodrome Stadium full of cheering supporters where he declares: "I fucking love this city". No wonder French chauvinists, always heavy on the ground in journalism there, were offended.

The series itself, particularly in the second series, promotes the multiculturalism of Marseilles as an answer to white right-wingers.

Life outside the police station

Criticized in the New York Times as shallow in its treatment of politics (as distinct from The Wire?) with "cartoonish street thugs" representing the Muslim population (as distinct from The Wire?), Marseilles in reality shows a Muslim father and mother asking their local politician to help them move into new public housing so that their children won't have to earn pin-money spotting police patrols for the drug dealers. The Wire, for all its virtues, gave us largely a police and criminal view of the city (as so often on U.S. TV) with very little interaction between the politicians and local inhabitants.

One of the Marseille writers was a journalist who won an award for his research into city's slum north quarter, so one might have expected some authenticity.

It is difficult to know how Marseille might have developed. The director Florent Siri apparently banned the showrunner from the set and was eventually removed himself before the first season ended.

"Marseille becomes loopier and more ridiculous as it goes," writes the Times reviewer. True enough, but that's common in even the best television (and many well-regarded plays such as Shakespeare's: cf Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth).

Spoiler alert

Depardieu, having annointed Benoît Magimel as his Mayorial successor, discovers the man is actually his son, while Magimel has been brought up to seek vengeance on the father who has not acknowledged him (think Hamlet crossed with Oedipus). He even declares at one stage: "The son must kill the father" and "Power is not given, it is taken."

Despite this, Magimel (though badly received by many critics) makes the Mayor's deputy a deeply conflicted figure, a relentless womanizer out of ambition while enamoured in the second series of a woman (Natacha Régnier) whose rightwing politics run completely counter to his own. Meanwhile, he is deeply committed to the Mayor's daughter (the young star Stéphane Caillard, actually born in Marseilles) and to her mother (Géraldine Pailhas, likewise born in the city). To keep the male-female relationships clear, many of the women except these two use sex with men to keep them in line and further political ambitions.

Incredibility of TV plots

In typical soap-opera style, the series offer us tentative sexual encounters between Magimel and the two women in his adopted family (before the revelation of their blood relationship) but these scenes are left hanging and never pursued. I guess the soapy message is that any emotional relationship can lead to sexual attraction in distress.

By now, though, experienced viewers should have learned to discard or overlook improbable plot lines in favour of allowing the major characters to move on to a new theme without closing off the main story/stories (e.g. the much acclaimed Spiral/Engrenages, BBC4's first French-language drama series reviewed separately).

* Note that in France, Spiral was viewed by only 200K, described by contrast as "a modest but loyal audience",

Russian critics have given us fabula (story) and syuzhet (plot): with fabula as the raw material of a story and syuzhet the way the story is organized. The distinctions have been criticized by postmodernists and as inadequately covering the variations.

Casinos and development

Here we can describe the underlying story of Marseille as the drama of a man who loves his city even more than his family. However, as the series moves forward we understand that the centrist long-time Mayor has done nothing to solve the city's problems, though it is also stated that authorities have no money to do what makes sense (better housing, education, welfare services). In series 2 we learn the backlash has pushed voters towards the New Right.

Meanwhile, the political drama centres on the Mayor's attempt to build a casino in the port area as part of its revival. This threatens the local mafia's revenues from one-armed bandits in cafés and organized gambling games. So they organize the situation to protect their fiefdom.

Personal dramas and immigrants

The personal dramas are the Mayor's wife discovering she has a degenerative disease that will shut down her cello-playing career (for several episodes we think the Mayor's discussions with the doctor are about him). We also see the Mayor's daughter living a promiscuous lifestyle and rejecting a childhood boyfriend from the projects who is obsessed with her (Guillaume Arnault). She works as a web content creator but refuses to write journalistic articles under her own name, despite pressure from her editor. We learn later that she has the position because of the networking power of the French middle class and the rich (the editor was a pal of the mayor).

In a further offshoot of the plot, the wife gets to know a young illegal immigrant who is a piano-playing prodigy. She sets out to help him and his teacher father. And in a key scene of series 2, his unofficial social assistant asks the wife whether she would have bothered with the immigrant if the boy wasn't talented.

Poverty and radicalization

We also see a young man from the projects who is imprisoned for drug dealing and is radicalized by Islamists as an escape from criminality, and dies planning a terrorist attack against indifferent French society with a controlled explosive drone.

In contrast to The Wire, in Marseille we see politicians reaching out to people in the streets and ordinary citizens feeling free to make demands of their local councillors (the truth can be different in reality for both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, I know).

For an immigrant, getting a café licence can be celebrated as an achievement of respectability, at the same time as it provides a way to launder earnings from the drug trade.

Music and scenery

Even if you don't like the storyline or acting, the drone-style shots of the city and the music by Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat are beautiful enough you feel they could be stitched together and distributed separately. At the same time, it operates ironically as a commentary on the charms of the port (leaving aside the housing projects) and the desperation of working class lives in France's second-largest city.

It would be wrong to make any great claims for the series or Depardieu's lacklustre performance, despite the weight he brings to the role, and sometimes weird turns of plot that might make you think everyone is going to end up in a mental hospital, or puzzle yourself (as another viewer also did) about why the male characters kept fiddling with their collars.

But if you take that all on board, Marseille could still offer you some unexpected insights into the way the French political system functions and challenge stereotypes about the place of immigrants, sports and business in the country's political life — one you'd have a hard time finding on the television news or in provincial newspapers, let alone its national journalism.

One final note, The Wire was criticized for dramatizing a Baltimore that existed only in the 1980s, when the author was a reporter, without an indication that much had changed completely since. No one has suggested Marseille presents an out-of-date picture of France's putative second city.


Capital, 20 April 2018. "Marseille" arrêtée : pourquoi la série de Netflix a viré au fiasco (LINK)

Europe1, 2 May 2016, "Marseille", la série de Netflix : "une saga d'été des années 1990 !" (LINK)

Gwilym Mumford, The Guardian, 5 May 2016. Cocaine shame: Gérard Depardieu's brash new show Marseille is nothing to sniff at (LINK)

New York Times, 10 May 2016, James Poniewozik. Marseille’ Proves That American Cable Clichés Are Easy Exports (LINK)


Marseille’s maverick Covid scientist: why the city took doctor to its heart. Didier Raoult has touted many dubious treatments but is a hero in France’s second city, which has long railed against Paris. The Observer. 30 August 2020. (LINK)

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